It might be a handy Republican icebreaker to joke that a Democrat couldn’t get arrested in Texas these days — except that one did. Now Texas Democrats are trying to weaponize last year’s DWI arrest of a high-profile party official, flying the public disgrace of Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, kamikaze-style, right into Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign.
Aside from Texas Democrats and, perhaps, Eric Holder, just about every liberal in the country is mocking last Friday’s indictment of Perry on two felony charges of abusing his power.
The Texas governor stands accused of following through on his threat to veto funding to the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office — a veto he carried out because Lehmberg, having lost a significant measure of public confidence herself, refused to resign as district attorney and leave the office vacant for a Perry-appointed replacement.
The Travis County Public Integrity unit has jurisdiction over Austin, giving it special significance for its oversight powers in the capital city. It also has statewide investigative powers not shared by other county-level Public Integrity Units (such as the one for Dallas County). The Austin Chronicle’s Jordan Smith explained this in an Aug. 6 article:
In the wake of Lehmberg’s April drunk driving arrest and conviction, for which she was sentenced to 45 days in jail (she served 20), Perry vowed to veto $3.7 million per year in biennial funding for the PIU, which has statewide jurisdiction in certain kinds of fraud and corruption cases, unless Lehmberg resigned her post.
… The Travis County DA’s office has special statutory jurisdiction in insurance and motor fuel tax fraud cases. Because the seat of state government is here, the PIU also prosecutes other tax and financial crimes that may have elements that happen elsewhere because certain key aspects of the crime, like the filing of legal forms — think campaign finance, for example — happen in Austin, which is squarely within the D.A.’s regular jurisdiction, even if the fraudulent documents were filed by a candidate or officeholder from some other county. That said, Lehmberg told Commissioners, the kind of high-profile political corruption cases that the PIU is typically associated with — read, the prosecution of Tom DeLay — make up but a small percentage of what the PIU does.
“Politics” is the word. Republicans dominate state politics in Texas. Democrats long for the days of Ann Richards, but they have a bastion in the state capital: Austin, Texas’ most politically progressive major city and an electoral haven for Democrats.
Travis County is where all this went down. Lehmberg killed herself politically by choosing to put herself in a position to earn a DWI: a position that challenged law enforcement officers — all of whom certainly knew they were dealing with the district attorney — to test her and arrest her.
Short of getting physically violent, Lehmberg behaved about as badly during her arrest as a public official’s worst enemy ever could hope for: She tried to throw her weight around. She insinuated her crony ties could exonerate her, and that they could harm the careers of the officers handling her on the night of her arrest. She demanded special treatment, privileges that anyone — especially the district attorney — knows aren’t afforded detainees. She behaved like a petulant, spoiled, self-indulgent narcissist whose primary concern was for herself and her career — not for the safety or the liberties of the people of Travis County. She asked for, and swiftly received, the swift due process that eludes so many others stuck between arrest date and arraignment.
Oh, and she blew nearly three times the legal limit — a significant length of time after taking her last drink, getting stopped by police, failing a field sobriety test and being taken into custody.
Alcohol may be the answer to un-watching that. Here’s an interesting bit of conjectural sleuthing on Lehmberg’s alleged relationship with alcohol.
It’s very possible that Perry’s motives aren’t entirely pure when it comes to the long battle for control over the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
“There is also a question about whether he had ulterior motives in defunding a public integrity unit that was investigating a cancer research fund that the Dallas Morning News called one of the governor’s ‘signature projects,’” The Washington Post offered Saturday. “They also note that some of those responsible for bringing the indictment have Republican connections.”
The Texas Tribune also observes that “[d]ismantling the [Travis County Public Integrity] unit is a perennial platform plank of the Texas Republican Party, and numerous members of the GOP … have criticized what they view as its politically motivated prosecutions.”
According to [former D.A. Ronnie] Earle, between 1978 and when he retired, in 2008, he prosecuted 19 elected officials, just five of whom were Republicans. Cathie Adams, the former Republican Party of Texas chair, filed an equal protection lawsuit over the issue in federal court last year. Her argument: Why should the voters of Travis County get to elect an official who has the power to prosecute offenses statewide? A frequently proposed solution — and one that state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, put forth unsuccessfully during the last legislative session — would be to put state corruption probes under the statewide-elected Attorney General.
Sounds like a plan. The squabble over control, funding and oversight of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit predates the Perry-Lehmberg face-off by many years, and Perry has seldom been criticized for emphasizing that Lehmberg lost the the public’s trust to continue directing its “integrity” office the moment she so richly earned that DWI.
And even Perry’s detractors outside of Texas think the indictment’s all kinds of politically motivated crazy.
In a posting titled “This Indictment Of Rick Perry Is Unbelievably Ridiculous,” liberal New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait pointed out the stupidity of prosecuting the governor for threatening a veto:
They say a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and this always seemed like hyperbole, until Friday night a Texas grand jury announced an indictment of governor Rick Perry.
… The prosecutors claim that, while vetoing the bill may be an official action, threatening a veto is not. Of course the threat of the veto is an integral part of its function. The legislature can hardly negotiate with the governor if he won’t tell them in advance what he plans to veto. This is why, when you say the word “veto,” the next word that springs to mind is “threat.” That’s how vetoes work.
The theory behind the indictment is flexible enough that almost any kind of political conflict could be defined as a “misuse” of power or “coercion” of one’s opponents. To describe the indictment as “frivolous” gives it far more credence than it deserves. Perry may not be much smarter than a ham sandwich, but he is exactly as guilty as one.
ThinkProgress, which naturally will vilify any GOP presidential candidate, questioned the soundness of the indictment in the softest language it could conjure:
Though the state legislature probably could limit this veto power in extreme cases — if a state governor literally sold his veto to wealthy interest groups, for example, the legislature could almost certainly make that a crime — a law that cuts too deep into the governor’s veto power raises serious separation of powers concerns. Imagine that the legislature passed a law prohibiting Democratic governors from vetoing restrictions on abortion, or prohibiting Republican governors from vetoing funding for Planned Parenthood. Such laws would rework the balance of power between the executive and the legislature established by the state constitution, and they would almost certainly be unconstitutional.
Over the weekend, the liberal/progressive roll call of indictment doubters kept coming out of the woodwork.
Retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told Newsmax he’d never vote for a conservative like Perry, but was nevertheless “outraged” at the “un-American” indictment. “Everybody, liberal or conservative, should stand against this indictment. If you don’t like how Rick Perry uses his office, don’t vote for him,” Dershowitz said. “This is another example of the criminalization of party differences … and this has to stop once and for all.”
“Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy,” former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod tweeted Saturday.
POLITICO’s Ben White tweeted a similar opinion — that it “seems quite perverse to indict a governor for exercising his clearly delineated constitutional authority.”
Even liberal celebrity Mia Farrow tweeted (and then deleted) her disgust, telling the world on Aug. 16 that “I’m no Rick Perry fan but the indictment doesn’t identify a law he violated. Looks like politics not felony” — before taking her posting down.
In the midst of it all, Lehmberg is still the Travis County district attorney.